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Lowering The Bar: Tehran 'White List' Excludes Most Lawyers From Politically Charged Cases

Iranian political prisoner Arash Sadeghi (file photo)

Only a tiny fraction of Iran's lawyers -- 20 so far -- will be allowed to defend citizens accused by the country's secretive, labyrinthine judicial authorities of political crimes, according to local media and legal sources who report seeing the list and a hard-line news agency's report confirming its existence.

The dramatic curb on a defendant's right to representation is already being seen in watchdog circles as a fresh threat to Iranians deemed enemies of the clerically dominated leadership.

The defense attorneys on the list, from a possible pool of thousands, have reportedly been approved by the hard-line Judiciary to take on clients in so-called Article 48 and Article 302 cases -- national security but also political and media offenses as described in the 3-year-old Criminal Code -- during the investigative stage of proceedings.

There was no explanation of the criteria that were used by the Judiciary -- which routinely prosecutes peaceful demonstrators, dual nationals with ties to academic institutions abroad, and government critics -- nor was it clear why it took more than four years from the code's passage, and nearly three years from its implementation, to produce the list.

Article 48 requires those charged with "crimes against internal or external security, and in cases involving organized crime, where Article 302 of this code is applicable" -- a reference to jailable offenses or "political and media crimes" -- "during the investigation phase, the parties to the dispute are to select their attorneys from a list approved by the head of the Judiciary."

There are no prominent human rights lawyers on the list, or even individuals with independently acknowledged records defending detainees in such politically charged cases.

Lawyer Amir Raeisian said in a tweet that authorities had "verbally" informed him and "some colleagues" that they were disallowed from representing such cases not only in the investigative stage but also "in court," which would go well beyond Article 48's wording.

Raeisian has defended political detainees that include activist Arash Sadeghi and award-winning filmmaker Keyvan Karimi.

Lawyer Seyed Ali Mojtahedzadeh was among those pointing out that one of the Judiciary-approved lawyers, Abdolreza Mohabati, acted as a deputy prosecutor during the much-maligned mass trials held for people detained during mass protests that followed the disputed 2009 reelection of conservative President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The court sessions and televised confessions resulted overwhelmingly in convictions and were widely dismissed by rights groups and other critics as "show trials."

Nasrin Sotoudeh (file photo)
Nasrin Sotoudeh (file photo)

Tehran-based human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda in a telephone interview that political detainees in Iran will be “completely” denied of the right to defense as a result of the list.

Sotoudeh, who has been pressured and jailed in the past for taking up sensitive cases, said defense lawyers have been the only hope of "independent" and "honest" defense for many of those facing politically charged accusations.

“The plaintiff in political cases is either the Intelligence Ministry or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, meaning it’s either a security body or a military one -- and both create fear and intimidation for the defendants," said Sotoudeh.

The list puts defendants entirely in the hands of the establishment, Sotoudeh said: “The defendant will be surrounded by elements and bodies of the state; the plaintiff, the judge, and the lawyer are all approved by the state."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Tara Sepehrifar said the list is just the latest example of the Iranian Judiciary’s interference with detainees‘ rights.

“The right to access a lawyer of your choosing is one of the most important safeguards against abuses in detention. Yet like other rights, Iran’s Judiciary is busy eroding laws designed to protect Iranian citizens,” Sepehrifar wrote on June 5.

An unnamed judiciary source was quoted by the hard-line Tasnim news agency on June 4 as saying the list that was being circulated was only for Tehran and that similar lists would be issued for other provinces.

Meanwhile, the head of the Tehran’s provincial Justice Department, Gholam Hossein Esmaili, was quoted by Iranian media as saying the list was not “final” but was issued to prevent a delay in the processing of judicial cases.

Radio Farda broadcaster Elahe Ravanshad contributed to this report.